King’s German Legion in Dorset

The King’s German Legion in Dorset (1803-05) by George E. Lanning

The King’s German Legion, which had for a time been stationed in Dorset, evolved from the King’s German Regiment, which was recruited in Northern Germany following the surrender of Hanover to the French on 5th July 1803.

King George III decided to offer service, under the colours of their hereditary ruler, to the troops of the disbanded Hanoverian army. On 10th August he issued a Royal Proclamation appealing to ‘All foreigners, and especially Germans’ to enlist in the regiment. By November so many had volunteered that it was decided to expand the regiment into a corps of all arms, containing a maximum of 5,000 men. On 17th November the officers and men of the King’s German Regiment were transferred to the new corps and His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge was made its Colonel-in-Chief. On 19th December the corps was officially established as the King’s German Legion.

The infantry and foot artillery of the new corps were to be based in Hampshire, the cavalry and the horse artillery in Dorset. By 18th December, 2,397 men had already joined the Legion, 400 of whom were cavalrymen quartered in Weymouth. By the end of the year the cavalry consisted of a brigade of two regiments. One of these was a heavy cavalry regiment, the 1st Dragoons, which contained many former Hanoverian Life Guards and was quartered in the Marabout barracks in Dorchester. The other was a light cavalry regiment, known initially as the 1st Light Dragoons though later as the 1st Hussars, which was quartered in the Radipole barracks in Weymouth. Both regiments consisted originally of four troops, each with the establishment of three officers, nine non-commissioned officers, one trumpeter and 76 privates.

However, with a continuing flow of recruits, each regiment was strengthened in February 1804 by two further troops, bringing the number of officers and men in the brigade to approximately 1,000. Recruitment for the artillery was slower than for the cavalry. Nevertheless, by the end of 1803, one foot battery had been formed at Hilsea barracks, Portsmouth, and one horse battery, not yet completely mounted, at Weymouth.

On 24th August 1804 the effective number of rank and file in the horse artillery was 117. At about this time the formation of a second horse battery was begun.

By the beginning of 1805 the organisation of the King’s German Legion, as it applied to the troops in Dorset, was:-

CAVALRY BRIGADE                                                                  ARTILLERY

Major General von Linsingen                                                     Colonel von der Decken

1st Dragoons, Colonel von Bock                                                 1st Horse Battery, Captain Hartmann

1st Light Dragoons, Colonel von Alten                                       2nd Horse Battery, Captain Rottiger

By the end of June 1805, numbers were sufficient for the formation of the 2nd Light Dragoons to be commenced and towards the end of that year the 2nd Dragoons and the 3rd Light Dragoons began to be formed.

Although there were men of various nationalities within the Legion as a whole, the troop of the cavalry and the horse artillery were almost exclusively Hanoverian. in their routine training they used the same form of drill and the same words of command as they had used in Hanover. Furthermore, the 1st Light Dragoons wore the same uniform – a blue kollett with red facing and yellow lace and buttons – as the former 9th Hanoverian Cavalry Regiment. The 1st Dragoons, on the other hand, wore a scarlet coat with dark facings, in keeping with the fashion of the British heavy cavalry regiments. The Horse Artillery also adopted the British uniform of a short skirted, dark blue coat with red facings.

The reason that some troops of the King’s German Legion were stationed in Dorset was that, with invasion fever at its height, the King was convinced that this county was one of the most likely areas of invasion. in fact, if he had had his way, the whole Legion would have been posted to Dorset. On 15th June 1804, in a letter to the Duke of York, the Commander-in-Chief, he called for “the Battalions and the Artillery of the German Legion, in addition to its Cavalry now at Dorchester, to be encamped at Radipole”. Later, on 10th September, in a letter approving the plan for the enlargement of Radipole Barracks, he wrote, “a Regiment at least must ever be placed here, as also a Battalion in the Foot Barracks, for Dorsetshire is one of the most vulnerable parts of the Kingdom.”

With the threat of invasion so acute, the troops of the Legion found that in addition to carrying out their normal training, they had to be constantly on the alert for a French landing. For the horse artillery normal training consisted of foot-drill, learning to use the 3lb, 6lb and 12lb cannons and 5 1/2 inch howitzers with which they were equipped, and the target practice, which usually took place on the sands at low tide. For the cavalry there were squadron and troop manoeuvres and individual riding exercises, foot drill, sword drill, both on foot and on horseback, and target practice with carbines.

On 1st May 1804, training was abandoned for the day when the 1st Light Dragoons were suddenly called to arms, alongside the 3rd Battalion of the Dorset Volunteer infantry, when news was received in Weymouth – falsely as it proved – that French troops had landed in Portland. The Light Dragoons and the Volunteers liaised closely. On 17th May 1804, for instance, the officers of the two regiments dined together following the parade at which the 3rd Battalion had received its colours. Towards the end of July the Light Dragoons were posted to Southampton, eliciting the following press commendation:-

“During their long stay here their conduct has been exemplary and reflects great credit on the officers and men; consequently their departure is to be regretted by the inhabitants at large.”

The 1st Dragoons then moved into Weymouth, ready, with the Somerset Militia, to provide protection for the King during his stay at the resort. Throughout the summer, routine military duties gave way to ceremonials – royal inspections, march-pasts, mock battles and reviews. The 1st Light Dragoons returned to Dorset, to Dorchester, in time to be reviewed by the King on Monckton Down on 23rd September. Every evening during the summer the band of the 1st Dragoons played on the esplanade for “the amusement of the royal family and the public”. The music played by this band was of a particularly high standard because the trumpeters of the Hanoverian Life Guards had transferred to it en masse.

Every regiment and battalion in the Legion had its own band. These bands were very popular with the local civilians because they played not only at parades and on marches but also at dances, at open concerts and at the request of the civic authorities. On one occasion, for instance, when the governor of Weymouth was returning from a successful court action in London he was met at the turnpike by his supporters and conducted to the town in a huge procession, headed by the band of the 1st Light Dragoons.

During his visits to Weymouth the King went out of his way to make his German troops feel at home. He rode out most mornings to visit them before breakfast. He lingered among their ranks during inspections, speaking to the troops in their low German dialect and addressing them as Mein Kinners (my children). He enquired after their families and discussed the latest news from Hanover. He attended their religious services and often wore the uniform of the 1st Dragoons. Furthermore, the whole royal family befriended the officers, most of whom came from the nobility, the landed gentry or the middle classes of Hanover. Nevertheless, in spite of their social standing and the fact, that like the British officers, they received their commissions from King George, the officers of the King’s German Legion were considered by the British, at least until the year 1812,9 to be inferior in that they belonged to “a foreign corps”.

In many ways the position of the King’s German Legion was similar to that of the Free French Forces in Britain following the capitulation of France to the Germans during the Second World War – with the important exception that, unlike the Free French, the troops of the King’s German Legion owed allegiance to the same sovereign as the British. Nevertheless, they were never likely to serve as a formation under their own commander but would eventually serve alongside British troops under a British commander.

They were given practice in such a situation in July 1805 when they took part in a very large exercise on Lodmoor, near Weymouth. All the troops encamped around Weymouth for the King’s visit that year, totalling 7,500 and including the 1st and 2nd Somerset Militia, were engaged in the exercise under the command of the Duke of Cumberland. The senior German officer, Major General von Linsingen, was given command of a cavalry brigade which consisted of the British 15th Light Dragoons and the two cavalry regiments of the King’s German Legion.

Although this was the first time that the German troops had been called upon to manoeuvre with British troops, using English words of command, they were considered to have performed at least as well as the British. The Horse Artillery were commended for their correct and steady fire and the 1st Light dragoons received special praise for their performance. The latter became the elite regiment of the Legion. During the Peninsula War it was considered to be the best cavalry regiment on either side. On 6th September 1805 the King’s German Legion was warned for service overseas. It was to form part of an expedition, under Lord Cathcart, which was being sent to support the newly formed Anglo-Austro-Russian Alliance. This was the news the German troops had been waiting to hear. At last they were about to return to the continent to fight the French, who had been inflicting so many indignities upon their homeland. It was in preparation for such an eventuality that they spent nearly two years soldiering in Dorset.

Towards the end of October they left Dorset for Dover and Ramsgate from which ports they embarked for Hanover. The English love of sport had soon rubbed off onto the Germans. The soldiers took up rowing, wrestling, boxing, fencing, cudgel-fighting, football and even cricket, whilst the officers were introduced to fox-hunting. The officers were also introduced to an institution which was unknown in the Hanoverian army – the regimental mess. One of the first senior officers to arrive in England wrote home to his wife, telling her that, “We eat together, which Is called mess, and the English officers consider this more important than any duty”. The German officers quickly adapted to mess life.

The British officers did their best to make them feel at home and this helped to make up for their loss of family life. Furthermore, ‘living in mess’ was comparatively cheap. This was appreciated by the Germans who had made financial sacrifices to reach England and who were now, unlike the British officers, having to live solely on their pay. There was plenty of social life.

The Germans had expected to be met with traditional English aloofness but they discovered that, as soon as the English realised that the Germans had the manners of gentlemen, they were invited to “breakfasts, luncheons, dinners, suppers, balls, garden parties, walks, driving and riding, shooting, hunting and fishing”. The local people not only appreciated their social graces but also took pity on them as “homeless foreigners”. Furthermore, they were only too keen to be friendly with those who, after all, were friends of the royal family.

Socially the German officers had a great advantage over most of their British counterparts in that they were good at music and dancing. This made them much in demand at parties. Additionally, they even knew how to do the waltz, a dance which had only lately been introduced into England – and this made them popular with the young ladles.

Our knowledge of the social life of the King’s German Legion is derived mainly from the letters of the officers who were stationed in England at the time. Unfortunately, of the letters which have since been published or used as source material by German historians, none was sent from Dorset. Consequently, these generalisations of the social life of the legion as a whole have to be treated carefully when considering the lives of those based in Dorset. In fact, of course, especially during the summer months when the Royal Family was resident in Weymouth, the social life of the officers stationed in Dorset was extremely full. Life in Weymouth during the season was a long succession of theatre-going, parties and balls, to all of which the German officers were invited.

One young lady, spending a holiday at Dorchester during October 1804, found German officers wherever she went. One Sunday, she and her sister were taken to Weymouth Rooms where, “we were much disappointed in not seeing the Royal Family, but we saw a great many ladles and gentlemen and German officers”! On 20th October she attended a ball in Dorchester and for partners,  “I began with Mr. Haines. then a German officer, then Mr. James Weld, then his elder brother, and I ended with Captain Bock, another German”. A week later she went to the King’s ball in Weymouth where. “Captain Ingram got me a very famous German with whom I danced two dances”. Even during the winter there was entertainment to be had in Weymouth. Every fortnight there were Town Balls, organized by the leading citizens and attended by the officers of whichever regiment happened to be stationed nearby.* Elizabeth Ham used to attend the balls in Weymouth and she described how:-

“The officers of the German legion used to amuse us greatly with their broken English and their vain efforts to try and induce us to try a waltz. This was the first we had even seen of this kind of dance. nothing but country dances were then in vogue.”

Undoubtedly the personnel – or, at least, the officers – of the King’s German Legion were as busy off-duty as they were on-duty during the stay in Dorset during the years 1803-1805.


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